Thursday, November 27, 2008

Lost in Theory

At the LRB, Elif Batuman has an enjoyable review of a new book, Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida by Elisabeth Roudinesco.

The review is enjoyable; the book sounds pretty tedious, as is suggested by this excerpt, provided by Batuman:

Never has psychological suffering been more intense: solitude, use of mind-altering drugs, boredom, fatigue, dieting, obesity, the medicalisation of every second of existence . . . As for social suffering . . . it seems to be constantly on the rise, against a background of youth unemployment and tragic factory closings.

   Set free from the shackles of morality, sex is experienced not as the correlate of desire, but as performance, as gymnastics, as hygiene for the organs . . . How does one climax, and bring one’s partner to climax? What is the ideal size of the vagina, the correct length of the penis? How often? How many partners in a lifetime, in a week, in a single day, minute by minute? . . . It would seem impossible not to detect, in this curious psychologisation of existence . . . that is contributing to the rise of depoliticisation, the most insidious expression of what Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze called ‘little everyday fascism’.

This sort of 'we've never had it so bad' declaration is tiresome enough--seriously, don't philosophers ever read any history?--but its irritatant factor is multiplied by Roudinesco's bizarre (but all-too-typical) mis-application of the word 'fascism'.

As I've pointed out before at some length, there is a particular kind of cultural-studies mindset that has adopted the f-word essentially to refer to anything deemed uncomfortable, inconvenient or, somehow, Bad.

More recently, we have seen this meme on the right, where key aspects of liberal thinking have been labelled, yes, fascism. (Excellent responses are available from Dave Neiwert.)

It should be obvious that the devaluation of the term is not only an analytical problem, but--considering the very real horror of actual fascism (old and new)--isn't it a bit galling to have the term thrown around with such wild abandon to refer to the comparatively genteel problems of Western orgasm addicts?

(Referring to Roudinesco's discussion of Deleuze, Batuman rightly wonders, 'More troubling yet, does 'fascism' in this discourse simply consist of being told what to do, for whatever reason, by anyone at all? Is it always like Sylvia Plath said: Daddy is "a man in black with a Meinkampf look"?')

Moreover: in what world is Roudinesco living? Does she really think that people experience sex 'as hygiene for the organs'? (Or as 'gymnastics'? Just where is she spending her time?! Sounds like fun!) Should we really regret the advance of medical science? Should we really elevate typical psychological dissatisfactions to 'fascism' (however 'little' and 'everyday'?). Is this not a tremendous impoverishment of our vocabulary for understanding the world?

Batuman is also sceptical:

A peculiar claim: how can Roudinesco possibly know whether more psychological and social suffering is caused by obesity, youth unemployment, factory closures and – one rather admires the leap – the hygienisation of sex, than, say, by the bubonic plague, the Spanish Inquisition or the slave trade? And haven’t any of our gains offset our losses? Thanks to hygienisation, sex has become less spontaneous . . . but we don’t all have syphilis.


‘Health fascism’, which appears in the OED, does of course have an empirical reality. It’s not great to be told that one should quit smoking, cut down on coffee, go to the gym more often and regularly submit to screenings for various cancers. Nobody likes to sit on a metal table, wearing a paper ‘gown’, awaiting the arrival of a doctor who is increasingly likely to be younger than oneself. But who is the fascist here: the medical institution or the human body? What can doctors do if our bodies crave things which are harmful to us?

Nor, as she correctly points out, is this a new problem:

Roudinesco seems to be describing not a topical crisis but a matter of ‘human nature’ in the longue durée. It’s true that Flaubert, whom some Marxists consider to be a Marxist visionary, did his share of railing against modern times; his complaints are, in their details, historically specific, and would provide material for an interesting Foucauldian history of complaining: when, exactly, did children become so unbearable? (Certainly, no later than the 18th century, and probably earlier. ‘Il n’y a plus d’enfants!’ Molière wrote in 1673.) But Flaubert’s primary target was larger, more amorphous, nearly timeless. ‘Human stupidity,’ he wrote in 1875, ‘is a bottomless abyss, and the ocean I see from my window seems to me quite small in comparison.’ The implication is less that we have scaled historic heights of catastrophism, stupidity and complaining, than that humans have long been a catastrophic, stupid bunch of complainers.

I have, first of all, to thank Bautman for bringing that marvellous Flaubert quote to my attention. And her conclusion there has a lot to commend it.

However, as is typical of a certain kind of 'critical perspective' these days, Roudinesco is clearly not a fan either of the notion 'human nature' or of the body:

Roudinesco, however, attributes our stupidity, like our unhappiness, to political causes – specifically, to fascism. She is a strong advocate of ‘politicisation’, which appears to mean the redescription of everything one doesn’t like in terms of the Third Reich. Thus cognitive science, which uses ‘biological, neuronal or cerebral reasons to “explain” the supposedly innate differences between the sexes and the races’, turns out to be a mere step away from eugenics, which is synonymous with . . . Nazism!

If it were simply Roudinesco who thought this way, this wouldn't be a problem; however, this kind of equivalence (biological approaches to human thought and behaviour = fascism) is remarkably common in the humanities and social sciences.

Strangely enough, however, when some real brutality shows up, Roudinesco conceals it behind layers of theoretical posturing. Batuman describes Roudinesco's approach to understanding Louis Althusser's killing of his wife Hélène:

One can excuse Althusser for writing an unbalanced book, because he was deeply unbalanced when he wrote it. But Roudinesco, who refuses to treat people like objects or books as symptoms, is obliged to read his memoir as a heroic assertion of human autonomy. Althusser, she explains, was answering the imperative to transform the strangulation of Hélène ‘into a work’: ‘otherwise it would be endlessly reproduced, recounted, disseminated, falsified, interpreted, by countless witnesses or non-witnesses’ who would audaciously speak in place of the true ‘author of the crime’.


Nonetheless, having posited the murder of Hélène as a ‘work’, Roudinesco sets about reconciling it with the rest of Althusser’s output: viz, books of Marxist philosophy. [...] On this premise, Roudinesco sets out to rationalise Althusser’s spousal misdeeds by subjugating them to the ‘Louis Althusser’ which holds together a group of politico-philosophical texts. For example, she suggests that womanising – particularly, a long-term affair with a sexy Italian translator – was the method by which Althusser ‘learned to detach himself from the Stalinist tradition of Communism, and thus to read the works of Marx another way.’


I was no more persuaded by Roudinesco’s claim that the Althussers’ marriage ‘was made of the same turmoil, the same putting to death, the same repulsion, the same exaltation and the same fusion that united [Althusser] at the same time with the Communist Party, the asylum and psychoanalytic discourse’; or by Derrida’s characterisation of Althusser as the prisoner of ‘crimes perpetrated in the name of Communism’: ‘the killing of conceptuality, the murder of a woman of the Resistance, a militant of the Communist idea’. To a hygienised American reader, there is something grotesque in this description of a domestic crime as an expression of disillusionment with the Communist Party – or an abstraction on the level of ‘the killing of conceptuality’.

This 'hygienised American reader' has much the same response. And he is, moreover, bewildered by a theoretical position that has to explain Althusser's affair with a 'sexy Italian translator' via a somewhat tortured-sounding effort to link it to a transcendence of Stalinist understandings of Communism.

I mean...isn't there perhaps a, you know, simpler explanation? (It's not as if the marital transgressions of normal mortals typically require such high-flown analysis, especially when they involve the words 'sexy' and 'Italian'.)

In any case, I recommend the whole of Batuman's essay.

And this is true even if Alex Callinicos remains unconvinced. In a testy letter in the current LRB, he takes Batuman to task for allegedly getting some of her facts wrong, such as precisely in which book Deleuze and Guattari introduced the theoretical concept of the 'rhizome' (a.k.a., 'laterally proliferating heterogeneity', doncha know).

I'm far from an expert on their work (to be honest I refuse to invest the enormous effort into desciphering their mystifying prose unless someone can explain to me quickly and clearly why it might be worth doing so), but this seems a minor point in response to her (rather mild) criticisms of their work.

(By the way, I very much enjoyed Batuman digging out the following gem from D&G: '“Be the pink panther,” said the two authors, “and may your loves be like the wasp and the orchid, the cat and the baboon”. Yeah.)

He also disagrees with her claim (or rather 'her persistent repetition of the vulgar charge') that Foucault was a 'conspiracy theorist'. Instead, he says,
Foucault in his middle period affirms the omnipresence of power, but he conceptualises power as non-intentional, constituting subjects rather than expressing subjectivity, crystallising around unanticipated consequences.
This is a plausible summation of Foucault's thinking. Unfortunately, his texts and thinking--while often intellectually stimulating (I made use of some of his ideas in my book)--are often so vague as to allow many other kinds of interpretations, as Lawrence Stone pointed out long ago. And one of these interpretations has been a tendency toward a one-sided and at least quasi-conspiratorial view of things like medicine and science.

Moreover, while I am no fan of conspiracy theories, I think even they are often more convincing than the omnipresent, disembodied, subject-constituting 'power' that Foucault sometimes seemed to be positing. Responding to criticism of Foucault by proclaiming one of his theory's greatest weaknesses doesn't seem to me to be the best strategy, Dr. Callinicos.

Batuman blogs, by the way, here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When I read this piece in the LRB, I was amazed at the mild tone of the criticism of what seemed to be the kind of silly-cleverness which hygienised American reader find grotesque and grubby Anglo-Saxon readers respond with, “What the fuck?”